Written by Fantasma el Rey
Down The Tracks: The Music That Influenced Led Zeppelin is an awesome 93-minute look at what drove and inspired Jimmy Page and Robert Plant to make music of their own. American bluesmen, 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, and British skiffle were the base of the heavy-hitting rock icons and this DVD documentary explores these roots. Down The Tracks digs further and follows those roots to the beginnings of American blues and the effects of rock ‘n’ roll on British music. The DVD also makes its way back to the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and the occult ramblings of an evil Brit whose name emerged again in the 1960s after being buried since the 1930s.
Down The Tracks starts with a quick introduction of how Page and Plant came together. Page was looking for a lead singer for a band he was looking to form; the two got together bringing with them a handful of records, which ranged from blues and rockabilly to local skiffle bands. When they sat down to listen and discuss, they discovered they had much in common, including the direction they hoped to take the new band. And that’s where the DVD pretty much leaves the journey of Led Zeppelin only mentioning that they went straight to large venues and on to bigger things. Not much history on the band, just how the following musicians, writers, and occult figures would affect their lives and drive them to deliver “blues on steroids” to arenas full of people.
The first hour of the DVD is about the blues. Many knowledgeable blues and rock historians lend their voice to tell the tale of how the blues rose from the Mississippi Delta jumped to Memphis then amped-up in Chicago. We get the stories of Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, and how they learned from and rivaled one another. Patton the loud growling-voiced showmen, who spun, flipped, rode, and played his guitar behind his back years before T-Bone Walker and way before a kid named Hendrix was born. Johnson was the mystery man who became so good so quick that folks began to believe he sold his soul to the devil. Son House, the living link between the two, who played with both, was the only one left alive by the 1940s to pass the torch to a new breed of bluesmen and be able to reap the rewards and witness the ‘60s blues revival; a revival spearheaded by young Brits.
Down The Tracks heads north to the automobile plants and the driving sound that McKinley Morganfield and Chester Burnett, better known as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf brought with them from the south and forged into electric thunder. That thunder would send shockwaves across the ocean and turn teenage guitar players into blues axe-men. Youngsters all over England would send away for these vinyl gems and spend hours trying to figure out the chords and beats. From here the world gets Zeppelin tunes like “How Many More Years,” “The Lemon Song,” “When The Levee Breaks,” and so many others.
Rock ‘n’ roll also hit the kingdom hard, especially the sound of Elvis (Presley), Scotty (Moore) and Bill (Black) from Sun Records. Not that Zeppelin played much rockabilly but it was from that hybrid sound that Page wanted to pick guitar chords and Plant wanted to wail (Think “Rock And Roll” and “Out On The Tiles”). 1950s rock ‘n’ roll was huge in England but with electric instruments hard to come by the poor Brits made due with acoustic guitars and tea-chest bass fiddles, launching a skiffle revival. Skiffle is pretty much jug-band music with jazz, folk, and country leanings; it’s rock ‘n’ roll without the power. When these kats discovered American blues in the early ‘60s, it all came together for them and their brand of rock ‘n’ roll was born and hit our shores; we called it the British Invasion when it was really American music returning in a slightly modified form.
Zeppelin added to the mix Plant’s awe of Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings books and Page’s fascination with Aleister Crowley and his teachings of sexual magic and drug use, along with their combined interest in Celtic lore. These particular inspirations become apparent not only on album art but in longer tunes that are more smoked-filled and “enhanced” by other substances. These themes blended well with the influence of British folkies, like Davey Graham, who came out of the skiffle scene and explored other native folk sounds from around the world. It’s here with the different guitar tuning and instrumentation where Zeppelin starts to expanded their sound, showing that their creativity and influences rang far and wide, from which we get “Stairway To Heaven,” “The Battle Of Evermore,” and “Kashmir.” The links between Zeppelin and the British folk sound is made clear on this DVD.
And that is what makes this disc interesting, not only for the fact that we get to look at the roots of Zeppelin but that the DVD shows and interviews as many of these people and influences as possible. Down The Tracks is more than men talking while the camera zooms in on still photos. The DVD takes you to the places, fields and plantations where these blues men spent their formative southern years, and uses as much footage as they can of the artists mentioned. We get to see Muddy, The Wolf, Son House, Bob Brozman who recreates the sound of Charley Patton, Davey Graham, and many, many more. The DVD slows at times but the overall knowledge within it is worth the price not only for Zeppelin and blues fans but music lovers in general. Even if you only watch the first half on the blues, you’ll be moved to go out and find music by those men or go back through your own collection, as I have done, to further trace the roots of Led Zeppelin and refresh the knowledge passed to me by my father, a true blues fan.